How attention to national “issues” might just be an excuse to avoid local realities
by Jeffrey Schooley
A congregant recently talked to me – at length – about the bathroom bill in North Carolina.
A friend was told by the clerk of his presbytery that he should be prepared for five to six churches to leave after General Assembly.
Another friend has a congregant on the rampage about the future of the Supreme Court because she is strongly against abortion and fears a liberal President will keep Roe v. Wade on the books for another 40 years.
What do all of these issues have in common? None of them are, necessarily, taking place in the local church.
The bathroom bill in North Carolina raises some big ethical issues, but not if you live in Pennsylvania or Arizona. Because, well, duh.
GA overtures that we are passionate about may or may not pass. Even when challenging issues pass, big changes in polity require a majority ratification of presbyteries. Given our system of governance, the most we can ever really say about contentious issues at GA is: This might matter. In February. Maybe.
So talking about leaving now seems premature at best and sinful at worst.
The Supreme Court is probably important, but not in terms of worrying about today (#SermonOnTheMount).
Over and over again, I witness Christians who are more formed by national news than local occurrences, more motivated by the 24-hour news cycle than their daily devotions. And this is, I’m convinced, an increasing problem.
My friend who might be surrounded by churches ready to break away most certainly lives in an area where the economic problems of rural life predominate. Far from being a potential concern ten months from now, there are hungry people needing a meal an hour from now.
I live in an area with nationally-recognized opioid overdoses. I’m less worried about birth certificates and bathrooms than I am someone dying with a needle in their arm in a bathroom.
My friend with the abortion-concerned congregant just had a young woman in his congregation give birth to a child without much familial support.
The potential for hypocrisy is easy to see. So easy, in fact, that I won’t belabor the point. Instead, I want to dig a little deeper and figure out why people (and, if we’re being honest, all of us) are so easily distracted from real, tangible, in-your-face concerns in favor of the flavor-of-the-day issue.
I suspect one of the reasons is because the church in America – amid its dying cultural persuasion – is seeking to remain relevant. Now, I’m not one of those Christians who say, “The church isn’t called to be relevant, but faithful.” I appreciate the sentiment of that statement, but I think it creates a false binary. I think faithfulness will be relevant. I think feeding a hungry person is faithful. I also think it’s really stinkin’ relevant to a grumbling belly. Instead, I think we’ve failed to recognize that God not only calls us to faithful relevance, but also defines what relevant means.
Relevant is another word for local.
Another way that I see this conversation popping up is in the multitude of para-denominational groups that are seeking to continually define and redefine what church means in the future. These are the types that hold conferences that try to reimagine, participate in social media discussions across the country and even globe, and try to seek what relevance means for the 21st century.
Yet, once again, I remain skeptical as to how relevant anything can be when it is pursued on a national scale. It is, in fact, antithetical if my premise that relevant is but a synonym for local is true.
(If you think the irony of my writing the above paragraph on a blog maintained by a national publication is too thick, please know that if what I write here only stays in the URL and doesn’t move to IRL, then I’m with you. In such a case, I would consider this column a failure.)
In the place of all of these scattershot conversations and concerns, allow me to propose how a church can pursue their faithful relevance. They begin by assessing the community in which they reside. They should take stock of the following five areas of community life:
- Public spaces (e.g. libraries, park, lakes, forests) – any place where different people might bump into one another
- Civic Groups (e.g. Rotary, PTA) – any organization that is not commercial, not ecclesiastic, and not governmental
- Businesses – who are the major employers of the area and how many local people work for these major employers?
- Social Service (food bank, shelters, advocacy groups) – any organization that is set up to serve the poor and oppressed; these can be faith-based or otherwise
- Other churches/communities of worship – both ecumenical and interfaith
Once a congregation takes stock of what actually exists in their communities, it should then seek which of its members already have pre-existing relationships in these area. For example, Jason is an avid cyclist and is regularly encountering community members on the bike trails. Debra is on the PTA. Morgan works at the accounting firm that employs 200 people over on Dykstra Street. Our church has a long-standing relationship with the food bank. Our pastor is collegial with the local ministerium and knows both the Baptist and Episcopal clergy well.
These folks should then be commissioned by their church to be missionaries in these various areas. They will be given the task of keeping an eye open for how Christ is moving in the midst of each of these important community groups. They will report back to the church how Christ is on the move and the ways that the congregation might be relevant to this movement in their community.
In the end, this is much more fruitful, faithful work than worrying about bad legislation in Mississippi or California. It is more meaningful than mindless opining about matters from afar. Yet, I suspect, it is also much scarier work. This is because it is easy to have opinions about matters that aren’t in your back yard. There’s no risk, no vulnerability in proclaiming that the parents who let their kid into the gorilla display must be bad parents. There is much more risk in standing up and saying, “Our community has a problem. Our church can help.”
The old adage think globally, act locally is good for as far as it goes, but only if we don’t allow ourselves to get distracted by only thinking globally. For too many of us, this is the likeliest outcome. And so if we can’t be kept from our poorer angels, then let us just change the adage: Think locally, act relevantly.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD candidate in Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.